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Millwood finding more African American teachers with emergency certification

Cecilia Robinson-Woods, Millwood Public Schools superintendent. [Photo by Doug Hoke/ The Oklahoman]
Cecilia Robinson-Woods, Millwood Public Schools superintendent. [Photo by Doug Hoke/ The Oklahoman]

Emergency certifications are a symptom of Oklahoma’s teacher shortage, but they’ve become a key way for a predominantly black school district in Oklahoma City to increase its African American staff.

Millwood Public Schools has created a teaching staff that more closely resembles its student population by hiring emergency-certified teachers, Superintendent Cecilia Robinson-Woods said. Emergency-certified teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree but no teaching license.

Research says this could be meaningful at Millwood, where the student body is 87% black and 6.6% mixed race.

“We’re looking for a certain type of teacher that meets the needs of students and is willing to learn and willing to make the commitment and understand our population,” Robinson-Woods said. “In looking for that person, a bonus would be that they’re a minority.”

Education research has shown outcomes improve for African American students who have at least one teacher of their same race. African American students who have a black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college and 7% more likely to graduate high school, according to a 2017 study from Johns Hopkins University and American University.

Currently, 11 of Millwood’s 70 teachers are emergency certified, and all but one of those emergency certified teachers are African American. Millwood staff is about 75% black, up from a 55%-to-45% split when Robinson-Woods was hired seven years ago.

“Really what’s happening is they’re answering a need that’s going unmet,” state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “We know that our students do perform academically better and, frankly, social-emotionally when they are working with a more diverse population, one that reflects their own story.”

Oklahoma is experiencing a lack of teachers entering the profession out of college, particularly teachers of color, Hofmeister said.

The U.S. Department of Education found a large majority of education majors were white, according to data from the 2012-13 school year. Only 7% of all U.S. public-school teachers were black in the 2011-12 school year, though the student population was 16% black.

“Kids can’t be what they don’t see,” Robinson-Woods said. “They limit themselves to roles, to jobs, to opportunities because their mind tells them that, ‘This is all I can do because I don’t know anybody that looks like me that does that.’”

Millwood doesn’t actively recruit minority teachers, but emergency certifications and apprenticeships have drawn interest from more applicants of color, Robinson-Woods said. Many emergency-certificate hires had already worked with Millwood schools as social workers, counselors or college prep assistants.

Kala Hester is in her third year teaching at Millwood High School after receiving her emergency certification. She holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and psychology and a master’s degree in criminal justice.

Hester said she decided to pursue teaching full time after working with children at the Boys and Girls Clubs and substitute teaching in schools.

The biggest adjustment, she said, was getting a handle on state standards, grade books and classroom management. Hester, who is African American, teaches ninth-grade history and geography.

“I feel like relationship-building is one of the main ways to get children to learn from you because if they trust you, of course, they’re going to work and listen and try to do their best,” Hester said. “So, I feel like that’s one of the No. 1 things that teachers need to do in order to teach the children is know who they are and care about them.”

A 2018 grant from the Inasmuch Foundation allowed Millwood to hire apprentice teachers, another opportunity the district has used to hire more African American educators. Apprentice teachers are new to the teaching profession and aren’t ready to take on a full classroom, yet, Robinson-Woods said.

Millwood saw significant teacher turnover in the 2014-15 school year. When the district posted open teaching jobs, applicants were scarce.

“That was my first time in a position as superintendent really understanding how limited my pool was,” Robinson-Woods said. “And so, that was the beginning of understanding the need.”

The district began exploring emergency certification options the following school year. Administrators and principals began hiring emergency certified teachers and provided them with classroom training, with an ultimate goal of helping them acquire a teaching license.

By 2017, 20% of Millwood’s teachers were emergency certified, but many of them failed to pass a teaching test within a state-required two-year window. This caused Millwood to change its elementary and middle schools to charter conversion schools, which gave the district an exemption in some teacher hiring policies.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education approved more than 3,000 emergency certifications this year, as many schools across the state struggle with a teacher shortage.

“This is a very specific community at Millwood,” Robinson-Woods said. “And so, having to meet the needs of this specific community causes for us to have to think differently about how we go about recruiting and retaining and supporting teachers.”

Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›